Apples and Oranges: The Comparison Game
“Why can’t you be like other kids who behave perfectly?” is a refrain I often hear parents complaining to their children. Yes, there were and are certainly moments when I wish my children were as “perfect” as other kids, but those moments are rare. I am more than happy for my kids to be individuals, albeit imperfect.
People do not do well when they are compared to other people. The damage increases when we begin to compare ourselves to others. “Why do other people have it so much easier than I?” “Why are they successful when I am not?” are not productive questions.
It becomes even worse when we compare ourselves to others in order to measure our spiritual success: “She said to Elijah, ‘what is there between me and you. O man of God, that you have come to me to call attention to my sins and to cause my son to die!” (Kings I 17:18) The Ralbag explains that she felt that Elijah’s presence in her home, with his impeccable standards of piety and Godliness, caused God to take note of her sins. When God compared her to her neighbors, she was considered righteous. However, compared to Elijah, she was a sinner.
The woman believed that God only judged her in comparison to the people around her, not as she was as an individual. How many of us could stand up to such comparisons?
And yet, the Sages understand that God did compare Noah to others: “Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations.” (Genesis 6:9) Some Sages maintain that the stress on ‘HIS’ generations is intended as praise: Noah was righteous even in his corrupt environment. How much more righteous he would have been if he had the companionship of Abraham!
According to others, the verse is critical of Noah. He was considered righteous only when compared to his generation. Had he lived in Abraham’s time, Noah would not have stood out as a righteous person. (Rashi)
That sure sounds like the comparison approach to me!
I suggest that the verse is not describing how God judged Noah, but rather how Noah set his sights on achieving his status as a righteous man. Some Sages read the story and understand Noah as someone who strove to be righteous only in comparison with his generation. He did not strive to achieve objective righteousness. He was satisfied with being more righteous than those around him. It was Noah who played the comparison game, and limited himself by so doing.
Other Sages read the story and picture Noah as someone who strove for true Righteousness. He did not play the comparison game. He set his sights on achieving the highest level of Tzidkut. He did not measure himself against his generation but against the highest levels of righteousness, the levels, we know, that were achieved by Abraham.
Rashi seems to prefer the former approach and understands the verse as limiting Noah’s praises. He comments on the next phrase, “Noah walked with God,” and says, Noah needed to walk with God because he could not maintain his standards without someone holding him up. Whereas the verse says of Abraham, “Walk before Me,” Abraham was able to walk on his own.
Harry Chapin closes his song “Greyhound” with, “It’s got to be the going not the getting there that’s good.” It seems to me that Noah was focused on ‘getting there’, he wanted to walk with God. Abraham, on the other hand, was focused on the ‘going’, the journey of his life. He knew that ultimately he would walk with God. He wanted to make sure that the ‘going’, the journey was good and productive.
Abraham was focused on the journey. His goal expanded and grew as he extended his trip and developed himself. Abrahams ‘getting there’ constantly changed as he grew as a human being and servant of God. His ‘there’ was not defined until the end of his life.
Noah was only interested in the ‘getting there’. He needed to define his ‘there’ where and when he was. Such a person can only set his sights by comparing himself with others. That was the only way that Noah could define his ‘there’.
We, the children of Abraham, follow Halacha – we are walkers and see life as a journey. We do not compare ourselves to anyone or anything other than our highest aspirations, which constantly expand and rise as we continue our journey in life.
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